Whenever I’ve recommended The Best Show on WFMU (91.1 FM, WFMU.org) to friends, I’ve been confronted with the complaint that the show is three hours long. And that they do not have three hours every week to listen to the radio. Admittedly, three hours a week might sound like a sizable investment if I didn’t know exactly what depths of nonsense these same friends happily waste their time plumbing on a regular basis without complaint. Wake up, clowns! There’s history being made right before your very ears. Pay attention.
The Best Show on WFMU, which has been on the air in some form or another for 10 years, is a monster. And its host, Tom Scharpling, is also a monster. A monster living in his monster house, delivering the monster laffs. It’s the Eastbound And Down of radio, i.e. “the best fucking show on radio.” Those same friends — who I have taken to calling “The Crybaby Squad” (Facebook Group!) — complain that the show is too difficult to get into*, which is precisely the pleasure of the show. It wards off dummies. You have to put in the work, but what you get in return is worth every minute. By the time the Best Show is done with you, you’ll wish you had more to invest, more to give. It’s precisely this type of dedication on behalf of the show’s fans that allowed the Best Show to break records at the annual WFMU fundraiser this year, raising $61,000 last night (for a grand total of $123,000 in two weeks). That’s $20,500 per hour. Do you know what that is? That’s IN YOUR FACE money is what that is.
In order to get to that number, Tom invited a number of special guests to make the three-hour marathon something special: Aimee Mann, Ted Leo, John Hodgman, and Paul F. Tompkins. Tom, dressed like Judge Smails, forgoes a chair to stand at his microphone, leaning over the board as he delivers the next three hours in a flop-sweaty barrage; a man getting it done. Meanwhile, a dedicated group of FOTs (look it up) man the phones on the other side of the glass. There are people everywhere. Two professional photographers. A documentarian. Phone bank operators. The celebrity guests. WFMU staff. Well-wishers. Stereogum photographer Santiago Felipe. Matthew from Fluxblog. A dude who came all the way from Sweden for this.
This is, you will recall, a radio show.
John Hodgman informs me that if I am in need of any strawberry milk for the night, he is the person to come to. John Hodgman. Writer. Performer. PC. Strawberry Milk Dispenser. He refers to the phone bank as The Boiler Room, and begins taking pledges. He’s like Giovanni Ribisi before the fall. Later, he and Paul F. Tompkins will go on the air simultaneously, and Twitter will explode.
Ted Leo kicked off the night’s special entertainment with a lo-fi man vs. guitar (one of the classic narrative conflicts) performance of “Nothing Left To Say.” Later, he joined Aimee Mann for a great performance of “Freeway,” and then Aimee followed that up with a solo performance of “31 Today.” And I know that this is a music blog, and that this is what I should be focusing on, but I can’t, because it is only a piece of the puzzle.
Paul F. Tompkins, host of VH1’s Best Week Ever with Paul F. Tompkins, is as usual dressed in a three-piece suit with a bowtie. But it is hot at WFMU, and particularly hot in the studio. Eventually, he unties his tie. A rare moment of deshabille, except that mostly what it reveals is that his bowtie is a real bowtie, like the kind you have to actually know how to knot, a skill that most thought had ended with the emancipation of Hong Kong from British colonial rule in 1984. And so somehow even in his state of partial undress, the man is still making the rest of us look like fools. I should point out as well that the reason he unties his tie is to go back into the studio to sing a duet of “Wise Up,” from the Magnolia soundtrack, with Aimee Mann. History. Before your ears. Wise up.
WFMU is listener supported, non-profit radio. Like NPR, but for nerds. Well, NPR itself is mostly for nerds. But you get it. It’s in a well-loved building in Jersey City, above a real estate broker. The walls are decorated in thrift store art. It reminds John Hodgman of his college radio show. It reminds me of my college radio show. It would probably remind someone who’d never had a college radio show of their college radio show. There are, I should point out, three days left for you to pledge your support.
Ted Leo plays “Timorous Me.”
At one point, Tom thanks someone who calls themselves The Lebanese Looker for her pledge, and then declares that lebaneselooker.blogspot.com is the “best video site on the web.” I will not say that I am deeply offended by this, if for no other reason than I find it hard to believe that the best of anything on the web ends with “.blogspot.com.”
To close out the show, everyone regroups in the studio: Tom, Associate Producer Mike, Ted Leo, Aimee Mann, John Hodgman, Paul F. Tompkins, for a rousing rendition of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” which is an Elton John song, with lyrics written by Bernie Taupin, which holds meaning for TBSOWFMU listeners**. It’s called a call back. For more on call backs, take a class at the UCB.
And again, not to harp on these kinds of things, not to use them to heavy-handedly beat dead horses over the head with, but the people in this room are all successful, self-actualized and creatively fulfilled grown up adults in their own right, and yet you can tell that they feel like they’re part of something special. To be in the Best Show community is to be in the Best Show family. Now go to your room. (And listen to The Best Show.)
NOTE: Yo La Tengo will once again be murdering the classics by request in a special pledge drive this Friday, 8-11PM.
*True, the show is built on an elaborate structure of inside jokes and deep library call backs. Perhaps it can be daunting to a newcomer, but perhaps that newcomer needs to recognize that great work demands great attention. It is not a passive relationship. In any case, Tom has begun a new podcast called The Best Show Gems for precisely this group. Small clips, once a week. Best of The Best. I’d also highly recommend listening to the episode from November 28th, 2006, which I still consider to be the single best episode start-to-finish. Work it out. Dry your tears, girl. Now you get it.